Sunday, 23 April 2017

Exhibition in the MET: Stories in Chinese Painting

Exhibition Overview

In China, paintings that tell stories serve as powerful vehicles to promote political agendas, endorse cultural values, or express personal thoughts. With masterpieces dating from the fourth century, narrative is the earliest established genre in Chinese painting. This exhibition is the first at The Met to explore the various ways in which Chinese artists have gone beyond mere illustration to convey multiple layers of meaning. 
Displaying works from the 12th century to the present, this exhibition introduces three distinct modes of pictorial storytelling: multipart illustrations presented in long handscrolls, often punctuated with passages of text; single iconic scenes that evoke an entire story; and generic landscapes or flower-and-bird paintings that acquire narrative significance through the artist's inscription. The exhibition is further organized by theme: historical events, seasonal progression, warfare, journeys, Buddhist and Confucian values, and family and friendship. One special gallery focuses on a grandiose military narrative—that of China's annexation of East Turkestan in the 1750s. The installation, a collaboration among three Museum departments, features a suite of European engravings alongside Chinese weaponry and a painting to show how an emperor exploited art for his own aggrandizement. 
Contemporary Chinese artists have continued the narrative tradition with an expanded repertoire of subjects and approaches. The examples on display range from reflections on the creative process to critiques of modern technology and government policies. Together, the approximately 60 pictorial works and 30 decorative art objects, most from The Met collection, present a comprehensive view of the narrative genre, demonstrating its expressive versatility and continuing relevance.

Show and Tell: Exploring Storytelling in Chinese Painting

15th-century Chinese handscroll depicting a battle scene against a backdrop of snowy mountains
Fig. 1. Unidentified artist after Song Academy painter. Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji (detail), early 15th century. Chinese, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on silk, 11 1/4 in. x 39 ft. 3 in. (28.6 x 1196.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family, Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973 (1973.120.3)
The genre of narrative painting in China reached full maturity as early as the fourth century and continues to thrive today. The exhibition Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting—on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through August 6, 2017—explores how Chinese painters have told stories that promote political and cultural agendas or communicate personal thoughts. Presenting more than 60 paintings and prints dated from the 12th century to the present, this exhibition demonstrates the continuing vitality and relevance of the genre.
Show and Tell is organized into three sections, with each featuring a different type of narrative. The most familiar of these is the long handscroll format used to illustrate a story in multiple scenes. As each of the handscrolls unrolls section by section from right to left, either in a continuous landscape setting or in scenes punctuated by corresponding texts, the viewer is transported through time and space. Measuring more than 39 feet in length, Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji (fig. 1) depicts the traumatic experience of Lady Wenji (Cai Yan), who was abducted by Mongolian nomads in 195 A.D. and returned to China 12 years later. The recurring sight of south-flying geese alludes to her homesickness, while intimate scenes of Wenji with her chieftain husband and their children deepen the pathos of the farewell scene as she is forced to leave them behind. Although this work was created in the early 15th century, this historical story resonates deeply with the issues of ethnicity and displacement of our own time.
Fig. 2. Zheng Zhong (Chinese, active ca. 1612–1648). Searching the Mountains for Demons (detail), first half of 17th century. Chinese, late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Handscroll; ink and color on paper, 10 5/8 in. x 27 ft. 9 1/2 in. (27 x 847.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 1991 (1991.14)
Without any explanatory texts, Searching the Mountains for Demons by Zheng Zhong (active ca. 1612–1648) (fig. 2) depicts a demigod and his ghostly entourage ridding the landscape of demonic creatures. The exorcist operation zigzags through a series of vignettes featuring demons in the form of wild beasts or charming women, whose true identities are revealed by their claws and tails. The dynamic composition conveys the frenzied pace of the hunt as disturbing images of violence are balanced by humorous encounters and the exertions of the hunters.
Fig. 3. Liang Kai (Chinese, active early 13th century). Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank, early 13th century. Chinese, Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink on silk, 9 x 9 9/16 in. (22.9 x 24.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of John M. Crawford Jr., 1988 (1989.363.14)
The second type of narrative highlighted in the exhibition relies on a single iconic scene—usually the climax—to evoke an entire story in the viewer's mind. A painting by the monk-artist Liang Kai (active early 13th century) exemplifies this style. In Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank(fig. 3), a lone figure lingers by a marshy bank under a massive, mist-enshrouded boulder. The work hauntingly depicts the final moments in the life of Qu Yuan (ca. 340–ca. 278 B.C.), a falsely slandered minister who took his own life by drowning in order to prove his devotion to the king, without showing any other biographical detail. The looming rock, a metaphor for the psychological weight sustained by the man below, is key to identifying the subject matter.
Fig. 4. Hongli (Qianlong Emperor, 1711–1799; r. 1736–95). Deer Antlers, dated 1762. One of two handscrolls; ink and color on paper, 9 3/4 x 81 1/4 in. (24.8 x 206.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913 (13.220.127b)
The third type of storytelling is represented by landscapes, still lifes, and flower-and-bird paintings that contain no narrative imagery but tell stories in their appended inscriptions. A typical example is a painting of deer antlers (fig. 4) by Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95). An otherwise simple still life, the picture is followed by the emperor's long inscription that relates when and where the deer was hunted down by his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, and reflects upon Kangxi's prowess and the martial values in his Manchu tradition. This type of storytelling is an important and distinctively Chinese practice, one that has never been recognized in exhibitions exploring narrative subjects.
Fig. 5. Wang Jun (Chinese, 1816–after 1883). The Shrine in Honor of Ruan Yuan, from the album Ten Sites Associated with Ruan Yuan, dated 1883. Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). One painting from an album of 10 paintings; ink and color on paper, each image: 11 in. x 13 1/4 in. (27.9 x 33.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Julia and John Curtis, 2015 (2015.784.10)
Most of the objects in the exhibition are taken from The Met collection; some are new acquisitions on view for the first time, while others have not been seen for many years. A few works that had been shown in partial view in past shows now enjoy a complete display, such as Wang Jun's (1816–after 1883) album on select sites in Yangzhou and Hangzhou (fig. 5), which serves as a pictorial biography of the eminent scholar-official Ruan Yuan (1764–1849). This new display of all 10 pictures in the album, rearranged in chronological order, enables a comprehensive and evolving view of the man's life.
Fig. 6. Jacques Philippe Le Bas (French, 1707–1783), after Giuseppe Castiglione (Italian, 1688–1766). The Lifting of the Siege at the Black River Camp (detail), plate seven from The Conquests of the Emperor of China (Les Conquêtes de l'Empereur de la Chine), 1771. Etching and engraving, Plate: 22 5/8 x 36 11/16 in. (57.5 x 93.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1945 (45.100.7)
Further showcasing The Met's ability to draw on its own holdings for a multicultural exhibition is a gallery on military narrative, the objects of which represent the collaboration of three curatorial departments. The subject of the gallery is Emperor Qianlong's East Turkestan campaign from 1755 to 1759, which ended with the annexation of Xinjiang (New Territories). The centerpiece, from the Department of Drawings and Prints, is a suite of sixteen copperplate engravings that illustrate ten battles and six ceremonies (fig. 6). Designed in the Western naturalistic style by European missionary-artists at Qianlong's court, more than 200 sets of prints were produced at the imperial workshop of Louis XV (r. 1715–74) in Paris.
Left: Fig. 7. Unidentified artist. Portrait of the Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao, dated 1760. Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, Painting and inscription: 74 1/4 x 37 7/16 in. (188.6 x 95.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund, 1986 (1986.206). Right: Fig. 8. Helmet with feather crest, 17th–18th century. Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Helmet: steel, gold, silk; Crest: eagle feathers, kingfisher feathers, paper, turquoise, coral, pearls, marten fur, silk, copper alloy, silver, Helmet: H. including nape defense: 20 3/4 in. (52.7 cm); H. excluding nape defense: 11 1/4 in. (28.6 cm); W. 9 in. (22.9 cm); D. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of George C. Stone, 1935 (36.25.2c–e, .7a)
The large full-length portrait of a general (fig. 7), one of 100 commissioned by Qianlong for those who made significant contributions to the campaign, belongs to the Department of Asian Art. A dozen 18th-century Chinese weapons and horse fittings from the Department of Arms and Armor, selected by Curator Donald LaRocca, evoke a physical sense of warfare. It is notable how close some pieces look to those represented in the prints and the portrait. The helmet with a feather crest for a high-ranking military officer (fig. 8), for instance, is worn by the commander on horseback in the center foreground of the print hung on the opposite wall (fig. 6).
In addition, there are works on view by contemporary artists addressing current issues raised by technological advancements and government land policy, or revealing personal creative processes—subjects not in the classical repertory. The exhibition presents a most comprehensive view of Chinese pictorial storytelling with many illuminating and engaging samples.

Related Links
Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through August 6, 2017
82nd & Fifth: "Metaphorical" by Shi-yee Liu
Liu, Shi-yee. "Containing the West in the Manchu Realm? Emperor Qianlong's Deer-Antler Scrolls." Orientations 46, no. 6 (September 2015): 58–69.
Liu, Shi-yee. "'Show and Tell': The Art of Storytelling in Chinese Painting." Orientations 47, no. 8 (November/December 2016): 44–53.

Friday, 21 April 2017

New find 2.100 old miniature looms to weave patterns found in Chengdu, China

LiveScience by Laura Geggel, april 19, 2017

Tiny wooden figurines have stood upright "weaving" at appropriately sized looms for more than 2,100 years in a Chinese tomb containing the remains of a middle-age woman, a new study finds.

The discovery of the miniature scene astonished archaeologists, who were surveying an area slated for subway construction in Chengdu, a city in China's southwestern Sichuan province, in 2013. The looms may be small — the largest is about the size of a child's toy piano — but they're the earliest evidence on record of looms that could be used to weave patterns, the researchers said.

"We are very sure that the loom models from Chengdu are the earliest pattern looms around the world," said the study's lead researcher, Feng Zhao, the director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, and a professor at Donghua University in Shanghai. [See Images of the Model-Size Pattern Looms]
It's unclear when and where the first looms were developed, but archaeologists have found ancient looms parts at a variety of sites. For instance, in China's eastern Zhejiang province archaeologists found an approximately 8,000-year-old loom from the Kuahuqiao archaeological site, and a roughly 7,000-year-old loom found at the Hemudu site, Zhao said. Other looms include pieces of Egyptian creations from about 4,000 and 3,400 years ago, respectively, and Greek looms illustrated on vases dating to about 2,400 years ago, the researchers said.
However, unlike their predecessors, pattern looms are used to weave a "complex kind of textile," Zhao told Live Science in an email. Weavers used this type of loom to create patterns by stringing up the weft (the crosswise yarn on the loom) and weaving the warp (the longitudinal yarn that is passed over and under the weft) through it, he said.

Except for cinnabar-colored red silk thread and a brown thread, there weren't any textiles found on the tiny looms. However, this re-creation shows what the loom would have looked like with fabric.
Credit: Drawing by Bo Long and Yingchong Xia; Copyright Antiquity Publications Ltd. 
Pattern looms likely inspired people to make the draw loom — a device that can weave even more complex patterns, the researchers said.
"[The draw loom] was then introduced to the West — Persia, India and Europe — indicating that the Chinese silk pattern loom made a significant contribution to the subsequent development of world textile culture and weaving technology," Zhao said.
The tomb chamber itself is spacious — about 24 feet long, 16 feet wide and 9 feet high (7 by 2.5 by 3 meters) — and contains one large room with four smaller compartments beneath it, the researchers said. The large room held the remains of an approximately 50-year-old woman whose name was Wan Dinu, according to a jade seal outside the coffin. (The seal was broken, suggesting that grave robbers had pilfered the grave's contents shortly after the burial, the researchers said.)
One of the small compartments under the grave held the four model looms, each about one-sixth the size of a regular loom, the researchers said. Next to the looms were devices for warping, rewinding and weft winding, along with 15 painted wooden figurines (four male weavers and nine female weaving assistants), each with a name written on them, suggesting that they represented real-life weavers, the researchers wrote in the study.
The 10-inch-tall (25 centimeters) weavers were carved "in the act of warping, weft winding and rewinding," Zhao said. [In Photos: 1,500-Year-Old Tomb of a Chinese Woman Named Farong]

This drawing shows the tomb, which consists of one large room with four smaller compartments beneath it.
Credit: Drawing by Yingchong Xia; Copyright Antiquity Publications Ltd. 
By studying the style of the tomb and a Western Han Dynasty bronze coin found within the tomb, the researchers dated the chamber to the reigns of Emperors Jingdi (157 to 141 B.C.) and Wudi (141 to 88 B.C.), the researchers said.
The model looms are "the missing technological link responsible for the renowned Han Dynasty Shu jin silks, which are frequently found along the Silk Road, and were traded across Eurasia," the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the April issue of the journal Antiquity.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to say that it is unclear when and where the first looms were developed. 
Original article on Live Science.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Unique dragon found in Siberia

Creature with 'a typical serpentine pose' existed more than 2,000 years ago, say scientists.
Unique dragon found in Siberia. Picture: Andrey Borodovsky
Detailed analysis of belt buckles unearthed by a Soviet tractor driver in the modern day Republic of Khakassia proves the existence of a distinct dragon on the territory of modern Russia, according to experts. 
The mythical creature is seen as distinct from other dragons, notably those famous in China. 
'In China of that time, which was Han era, a set image of a dragon, later one the main symbols of the national identity, did not yet exist. Yet the same period in Siberia we have a formed composition of dragon images in a typical serpentine pose,' said Andrei Borodovsky, a researcher from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Siberian branch of Russian Academy of Sciences.
'Although at the end of the first millennium BC the territory of South Siberia was under very strong Chinese influence, the buckles depicting the Iyussky dragon were most likely were produced locally. They were original, and  not copies. It was an independent development of the image.'
'The dragon's figure is a symbol that allows us to say that Siberia has always had a set of particular, specific features as a cultural area.' 

They were original, and  not copies. Pictures: Andrey Borodovsky
The dragon is seen as a talisman protecting the owner from danger, researchers have suggested. 
Archeologist Vitaly Larichev said image of the Siberian dragon may be linked to ancient notions about the calendar and astronomy.
It is known that nearby ancient astronomic observations were held at an  'observatory' called Sunduki in Khakassia.
A Chinese dictionary from AD 200 reads: 'On the day of spring equinox the dragon flies to the sky, on the day of autumn equinox it delves into abyss and covers in mud.' 
Dr Borodovsky believes that the Siberian dragon image were dated to the end of the first millennium BC until the second century AD. 
Then they vanished.

The belt buckles unearthed by a Soviet tractor driver in the modern day Republic of Khakassia. Pictures: Alexander Kuptsov, The Siberian Times
Later dragons were copies of the familiar Chinese dragons with a zigzag movement.
The dragon buckles - some eight in number - were found by Iyus state collective farm worker Sergei Fefelov in the mid-1970s as he ploughed a field. Initially he thought the metal was a tractor part, but then he noticed the treasure was wrapped in birch bark. 
Digging around, he found a large cauldron made of red bronze with 271 items inside. 
New research on the buckles has disclosed the existence of the Siberian dragon in ancient mythology. 
The case was highlighted in Science of Siberia, journal of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Fruits of the Silk Road/ Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road/ First Farmers of Inner Asia

From: The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Fruits of the Silk Road  

Many of the fruits, nuts, and grains on our dinner table once spread across the ancient world along the routes of the great Silk Road. Therefore, by studying which crops moved along these routes and at which time periods, we are studying the history of the food you eat – the greatest artifacts of the ancient Silk Road are in your kitchen today.
Four views of a Chickpea (<em>Cicer arietinum</em>) from the ancient Silk Road urban center of Tashbulak (ca. A.D. 1100), in the mountains of Uzbekistan. Archaeobotanical studies at Tashbulak were led by Robert Spengler and excavations were directed by Farhad Maqsud and Michael Frachetti.Zoom Image
Four views of a Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) from the ancient Silk Road urban center of Tashbulak (ca. A.D. 1100), in the mountains of Uzbekistan. Archaeobotanical studies at Tashbulak were led by Robert Spengler and excavations were directed by Farhad Maqsud and Michael Frachetti.
The Silk Road was the largest commerce network of the ancient world; it linked the disparate ends of the vast Eurasian supercontinent and in doing so connected the imperial centers of East and southwest Asia. Organized trade, including military outposts and government taxation, along the Silk Road dates back to the Han dynasty in the second century B.C. However, the exchange of goods, ideas, cultural practice, and genes, through the thousands of kilometers of desert and mountainous expanses comprising this region dates back to at least the third millennium B.C. This flow of cultural traits through Central Asia during the past four and a half millennia was a major driving force in the development of cultures across the Old World and shaped cuisines around the globe. With the increased application of modern scientific archaeology, specifically archaeobotanical methods, in Central Asia over the past decade, the importance of farming to past peoples of eastern Central Asia is becoming clearer. In addition, the spread of specific crops and crop varieties through the mountain valleys of Central Asia directly altered farming systems across Europe and Asia, introducing crops, such as millet, to Europe and wheat to China. Archaeobotanically tracing the path that plants followed on their long journey across Central Asia, helps us understand how these foods ultimately reached our dinner plates today.
Apples were domesticated in southeastern Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan Mountains, but when the spread out of Central Asia along the Silk Road, they were brought into contact with wild crabapple species and hybridized, creating what we think of as the modern apple.Zoom Image
Apples were domesticated in southeastern Kazakhstan in the ... [more]
The “Fruits of the Silk Road” project traces out the path of many familiar crops, particularly arboreal crops, as they spread across the Old World. A few examples of the studies that this project team is working on include: how and when apples spread out of Central Asia toward China and Europe; when peaches and apricots spread across the Old World; and when and from where melons spread. In order to understand these dissemination processes, Dr. Spengler teamed up with the Archaeology of the Qarakhanids project directed by Michael Frachetti and Farhad Maksudov. Analyzing archaeobotanical data from the late first and early second millennium A.D. archaeological site of Tashbulak has allowed the team to piece together what kinds of fruits, grains, and legumes were sold at market bazaars in Central Asia during the period of the Medieval Silk Road. Expanding upon the Tashbulak data, Dr. Spengler and his colleagues are using textual evidence and a growing archaeobotanical data set from multiple contemporaneous sites to explore how the Silk Road shaped the way we eat.
Related Publications
Spengler, R. N., Kidder, T. R. Henry, E. Maqsud, F. Panyushkina, I.Hermes, T. & Frachetti, M. D. In Review Fruits of the Silk Road: Medieval agriculture of Central Asia
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Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road

The landscape of Inner Asia may seem ‘wild’ and untamed; however, it is the direct product of thousands of years of human occupation. People have shaped the land for farming and herding and harvested the forests for fuel and lumber, ultimately reshaping every ecosystem.
A modern Pistachio plantation in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan, photo taken in 2013. The wild progenitor of our modern pistachio was one of the dominant species in the ancient fruit and nut forests that once covered the foothills of Inner Asia.Zoom Image
A modern Pistachio plantation in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan, photo taken in 2013. The wild progenitor of our modern pistachio was one of the dominant species in the ancient fruit and nut forests that once covered the foothills of Inner Asia.

Central Asia expresses extreme ecological variability across space and also through time; with increasing paleoecological investigation, it is becoming clear that humans played a direct role in shaping this variability. Over the past several millennia humans have adapted to the diversity and unpredictability of the region, and in the process they have reshaped the landscape. Archaeobiological data are illustrating how biologically different the foothills of Central Asia were in the past; the forests that once covered much of the foothill ecotone played an important role in early human occupation. These wild fruit and nut forests provided foraged and hunted food for early settlers, and the rich ecological pockets in river valleys have been and still are key to pastoral grazing. In addition, many of the familiar fruit and nuts that we cultivate today, such as the apple and pistachio, originated in these now largely lost shrubby forests.
The Talgar Alluvial fan in the Tien Shan Mountains about 20km from the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, a region that has been heavily cultivated for at least two millennia (photo taken in 2008).Zoom Image
The Talgar Alluvial fan in the Tien Shan Mountains about 20km from the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, a region that has been heavily cultivated for at least two millennia (photo taken in 2008).
As scholars study the archaeology and paleoenvironments of Central Asia, it is becoming increasingly clear how closely intertwined humans were with the evolution of the landscape. Beyond converting forests into pastureland and agricultural fields, humans have directly modified forest composition and vegetation cover across Eurasia. The gradual deforestation of the mountain foothills of Central Asia seems to reflect an intensification of human economy, especially surround intensive metal smelting, and reflects a long term process of cultural Niche Construction. Humans have continued to shape the landscape of Central Asia since the fourth millennium B.C., clearing land for herd pastures, opening up river valleys for farming, and harvesting wood resources for fuel and lumber. The “Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road” project is showing that the biotic landscapes of Central Asia are a direct artifact of prehistoric humans, and these anthropogenic ecosystems illustrate part of the story of the Silk Road.
Related Publications
Spengler, R. N., III, Nigris, I., Cerasetti, B., & Rouse, L. M. 2016 The Breadth of Dietary Economy in the Central Asian Bronze Age: A case study from at Adji Kui in the Murghab Region of TurkmenistanJournal of Archaeological Science. Online First
Miller, N. F., Spengler, R. N., & Frachetti, M. 2016 Millet Cultivation across Eurasia: Origins, Spread, and the Influence of Seasonal ClimateThe Holocene. 26:15661575.
Spengler, R. N., III 2015 Agriculture in the Central Asian Bronze AgeJournal of World Prehistory. 28(3):215–253.
Spengler, R. N., III, &Willcox, G. 2013 Archaeobotanical Results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age Village on the Edge: Agriculture and Exchange. Journal of Environmental Archaeology. 10(3):211–221.
Spengler, R. N., III, Frachetti, M. D., & Fritz, G. J. 2013 Ecotopes and Herd Foraging Practices in the Bronze and Iron Age, Steppe and Mountain Ecotone of Central AsiaJournal of Ethnobiology. 33(1):125–147.
More Information

First Farmers of Inner Asia

Historians and archaeologists have referred to Inner Asia as the pastoralist realm, arguing that a ‘nomadic’ economy dominated the region in prehistory. However, in recent years, as archaeobotanical methods are becoming more common, it is become clearer that Central Asians in the past maintained a mixed agropastoral system. A distinct package of crops spread through much of the Central Asian foothills by the second millennium B.C.
Excavations at the Tasbas site in Kazakhstan in 2011 were directed by Paula Doumani and Michael Frachetti, with archaeobotanical studies run by Robert Spengler. The site is a small-scale encampment and has provided the earliest evidence for domesticated grains in northern Central Asia (third millennium B.C.), and also the best evidence for local cultivation of grains, by the second millennium B.C.Zoom Image
Excavations at the Tasbas site in Kazakhstan in 2011 were directed by Paula Doumani and Michael Frachetti, with archaeobotanical studies run by Robert Spengler. The site is a small-scale encampment and has provided the earliest evidence for domesticated grains in northern Central Asia (third millennium B.C.), and also the best evidence for local cultivation of grains, by the second millennium B.C.
The popular image of Inner Asia as the realm of the horse-back warrior nomads has permeated the academic literature for nearly a century, in doing so it has directed the nature of research questions asked by academics. Partially due to the generally accepted idea that people in this part of the world were ‘nomads’, archaeobotanical methods have been largely lacking. While archaeologists have studied farming systems in the ancient sedentary agricultural zones in southern Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), which date back to the sixth millennium B.C., the role of farming in the economy of people in eastern Kazakhstan and western China in the past has received little attention. Essentially, why look for farming if it is already accepted that these people were pastoralists? However, starting in 2006, with increased archaeobotanical investigation in eastern Kazakhstan, Dr. Spengler spearheaded the “First Farmers of Inner Asia” program. As a result of this growing research focus, it is becoming increasingly clear that domesticated grains were known in the region at least as far back as the third millennium B.C. and that a mixed agropastoral economy was present by the mid-second millennium B.C. Inner Asia was not only the crossroads of the ancient world, but it was also a center of innovation and cultural development; in this sense, understanding the nature of early economy in the region directly feeds into our understanding of the prehistory of the Old World.
Four broomcorn millet grains from the earliest layers at the Begash site in eastern Kazakhstan dating to roughly 2200 cal B.C., image published in Frachetti et al. (2010) Antiquity 84:993-1010.Zoom Image
Four broomcorn millet grains from the earliest layers at the Begash site in eastern Kazakhstan dating to roughly 2200 cal B.C., image published in Frachetti et al. (2010) Antiquity 84:993-1010.
In 2006, Dr. Spengler joined the Dzhungar Mountains Archaeological Project, directed by Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis, to look at archaeobotancial samples from Begash in eastern Kazakhstan. The Begash site has provided a long sequence of punctuated human occupation and some of the earliest evidence for domesticated grains in the mountains of northern Central Asia. In 2011, Dr. Spengler joined the Tasbas archaeological project, co-directed by Paula Doumani (Nazarbayev University) and Michael Frachetti. The oldest occupation layers at Tasbas have provided the earliest evidence for domesticated grains in the region, dating to the mid-third millennium B.C., and the second millennium B.C. cultural layers at the site have provided clear evidence for a mixed agropastoral economy. Subsequently, the “First Farmers of Inner Asia” program has branched into new areas, maintaining projects in Tajikistan and western China.
Related Publications
Spengler, R. N., III, Nigris, I., Cerasetti, B., & Rouse, L. M. 2016 The Breadth of Dietary Economy in the Central Asian Bronze Age: A case study from at Adji Kui in the Murghab Region of Turkmenistan. Journal of Archaeological Science. Online First
Spengler, R. N., III, Ryabogina, N., Tarasov, P., & Wagner, M. 2016 The Spread of Agriculture into Northern Asia. The Holocene. 26:1527-1540.
Miller, N. F., Spengler, R. N., & Frachetti, M. 2016 Millet Cultivation across Eurasia: Origins, Spread, and the Influence of Seasonal Climate. The Holocene. 26:1566-1575.
Spengler, R. N., III 2015 Agriculture in the Central Asian Bronze Age. Journal of World Prehistory. 28(3):215–253.
Doumani, P. N., Frachetti, M. D., Beardmore, R., Schmaus, T., Spengler, R. N., & Mar’yashev, A. N. 2015 Bronze Age Mountain Agriculture, Funerary Ritual, and Mobile Pastoralism at Tasbas, Southeastern Kazakhstan. Archaeological Research in Asia. 1-2:17–32
Spengler, R. N., III, Cerassetti, B., Tengberg, M., Cattani, M., & Rouse, L. M. 2014 Agriculturalists and Pastoralists: Bronze Age Economy of the Murghab Delta, Southern Central Asia. Journal of Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 23:805–820.
Spengler, R. N., Frachetti, M. D., Doumani, P. N., Rouse, L. M., Cerasetti, B., Bullion, E., & Mar’yashev, A. N. 2014 Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281:20133382.
Spengler, R. N., III, Doumani, P., & Frachetti, M. 2014 Agriculture in the Piedmont of Eastern Central Asia: The Late Bronze Age at Tasbas, Kazakhstan. Quaternary International. 348:147–157.
Spengler, R. N., III, & Willcox, G. 2013 Archaeobotanical Results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age Village on the Edge: Agriculture and Exchange. Journal of Environmental Archaeology. 10(3):211–221.
Frachetti, M. D., Spengler, R. N., Fritz, G. J., & Mar’yashev, A. N. 2010 Earliest Direct Evidence for Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region. Antiquity 84:993–1010.
More Information

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Search for Genghis Khan's Tomb

The location of Genghis The location of Genghis Khan’s burial site is an 800-year-old mystery that has captured the imagination of explorers and scholars alike.  American adventurer Alan Nichols believes he may be one step closer to solving the puzzle.Khan’s burial site is an 800-year-old mystery that has captured the imagination of explorers and scholars alike.  American adventurer Alan Nichols believes he may be one step closer to solving the puzzle.

Post Magazine, 2016, Words and Pictures Tessa Chan

“I could tell you where Genghis Khan is buried,” says Alan Nichols, the first time we speak.  “But then I’d have to shoot you.”
We laugh, but I am not sure the American explorer isn’t serious: after all, it’s a mystery that’s endured for nearly 800 years.
There have been many attempts to find Genghis’ tomb by grave robbers, adventurers and archaeologists.  Most have been centred on Burkhan Khaldun, in the Khentii province of northeastern Mongolia, the great warrior’s birthplace.  According to The Secret History of the Mongols (1240), the oldest surviving literary work on the last days of Genghis, he sought refuge here, worshipped here, declared it the most sacred mountain in Mongolia and – most intriguingly – exclaimed, “Bury me here when I pass away.” However, all searches of the area have proved fruitless.

Alan Nichols, 86, explorer.
After a decade of research, Nichols, 86, an attorney, published author and expert on Tibet and China, is convinced Genghis’ final resting place is elsewhere.  He invited me to join an expedition to show the tomb is hidden where he thinks it is, but his emails were so cryptic that only at the last minute did I know which country to book flights to.
At first, all I was told was that we were going “somewhere in historical Mongolia”, the route and plans changing in the days leading up to our meeting.
His obsession with secrecy is largely due to concerns about what could happen should knowledge of the burial site fall into the wrong hands.  Not only would the discovery of the tomb of the founder of the Mongol empire be of huge historical significance, it’s also believed to be full of jewellery, precious metals and relics.  
“I’m very careful about not telling people where it is,” he says.  “I have agreements with all the technical people – I’m a lawyer, as you know – and I’ve already thought how to make sure that nobody lets it out” before, that is, he’s been able to go through the correct channels and guarantee some measure of protection.

A Hui girl looks out over one of a spread of construction sites near Ningxia’s Liupan Mountains, where Genghis Khan died.
Nichols was the 42nd president of the Explorers Club, a New York-founded international society that promotes scientific exploration, and he holds several world firsts, inclu­ding being the first Westerner to circumambulate Tibet’s most sacred mountain, Mount Kailas, and the first to cycle the entire Silk Road.  He’s been studying sacred mountains for 60 years but Nichols’ search for Genghis’ tomb is contentious.
“Mongolians are fairly unanimous in not wanting their founder to be disturbed,” says Mongolia-based American professor and anthropologist Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004).  “He said, ‘Let my body die, but let my nation live.’ Therefore, people should ignore the body and concentrate on the welfare of the nation.  The idea that anyone would search for the tomb is disturbing for most Mongols, and the idea of foreigners searching for it can be quite alarming.”
Genghis was a master of deception.  He would mislead enemies into thinking his men were retreating when they were lying in wait and use propaganda to spread fear about the size and ferocity of his army.  Although most historians agree he was killed on August 18, 1227, during the fall of Yinchuan, now the capital of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, there is surprisingly little in writing about how the warrior died or his burial.
“Mongols have strict taboos about discussing death; so very little is recorded,” says Weatherford.  “This created many opportunities for foreigners to write all types of imaginative and speculative scenarios of what happened.”
Some say he was struck by lightning, others that he was killed by a vengeful queen, while still others believe he was killed in battle or falling off his horse.
He is said, however, to have left clear instructions that nobody should disturb his remains.  One legend has it that the 1,000 soldiers who carried the khan’s body to its burial site were killed to prevent them from disclosing its location, then those who killed the burial brigade were also dispatched, and thousands of horses were released to trample the ground in which he was buried, to hide any trace of it as having been disturbed.  Other stories tell of a forest being planted or a river diverted, to hide the site.
Who was Genghis Khan?
There was excitement when Genghis’ palace was discovered by a Japanese-Mongolian expedition in 2004, as ancient texts refer to officials travelling daily between the palace grounds and the burial site, to conduct rituals, yet the tomb was not found.
One of the most dedicated Genghis hunters, American amateur archaeologist Maury Kravitz, spent 40 years searching for the tomb near Burkhan Khaldun, and reportedly had to pull out of one excavation due to a series of unfortunate events that included team members being bitten by pit vipers and cars rolling off hills for no apparent reason – reinforcing beliefs that the tomb is protected by a curse.  That expedition was publicly condemned by a former Mongolian prime minister but Kravitz continued his efforts until he died of heart disease, aged 80, in 2012.
Hope has been revived in recent years by technological advances.  California-based research scientist Albert Lin Yu-Min has been leading a crowdsourcing effort to analyse satellite imagery and employ non-invasive tools to search for anomalies underground near Burkhan Khaldun.
Convinced everyone else is hundreds of miles off the mark, however, Nichols has zeroed in on a sacred site he refers to simply as “Mountain X”, and is now attempting to prove that this is where Genghis’ remains lie.
“I already know that there are anomalies down there,” he says.  “I know something is under that ground that is not part of the ground.”
What makes him so sure?
“I’ve already been on three expeditions, and I spent the first seven years developing criteria [including distance, terrain and allowances for shamanistic beliefs and the probable use of deception] for locating the tomb of Chinggis Qa’an,” which, according to Nichols, is a more accurate rendering of the name.
A few weeks after our initial phone call, I meet Nichols and his crew over breakfast in Yinchuan.  They’ve been in the field for two weeks and have been taking readings on Mountain X using magnetometers and a ground-penetrating radar.  
Pocketing a USB stick full of data they’ll spend the next few months analysing, Nichols introduces me to the team.  For the final leg of his expedition, I am joining magnetometer expert Jerry Griffith, emergency doctor Stew Lauterbach (“Who’s here to keep me alive,” says Nichols), the explorer’s wife, Becky, a documentary film crew, drivers Qiang and Hao Lipeng and translator Zhu Yvette Youjia, who is also in charge of logistics.
Liupanshan, like most of the towns in the area, is seeing a lot of construction, though many of the new buildings remain empty.
“Our selected site is somewhat complicated, because right now it’s a construction zone,” says Griffith, without giving me the slightest idea of how far we are from Mountain X.  “So we’re trying to take the readings around heavy equipment and construction workers.  But we took 48 plots or grids and, hopefully, we have enough data to piece together what we want to know, which is whether Genghis Khan’s tomb is where we think it is.”
Our objective over the next week will be to trace the route Genghis’ funeral cortege would have followed.
“We know that he had to be taken from where he died, in [Ningxia’s] Liupan Mountains, back to ancient Mongolia,” says Nichols.  “He’s a Mongolian leader and there’s no way you’d bury him in China.  So the point now is to track how he got there – nobody’s actually established that before.”
We have to prove that it’s not only a feasible route, but a fast one, he adds.

Alan Nichols' route, decided through on-the-ground research and a process of elimination, shows the funeral cortege following what is now a railway line through a valley from the Liupan Mountains, skirting the Tengger Desert and heading towards “Mountain X”.
What will we find in the tomb and what can it teach us about Genghis Khan and his empire?
Hover your mouse over the items to see the answers
“According to Mongolian shamanism, which governs all of this, he must be buried promptly, because when a person dies his spirit goes into his spirit banner, but his bones are invaded by evil forces.  You can’t even touch a corpse without dangerous consequences to yourself: physical, mental and emotional.”
While on the road, I receive an email from Hong Kong-based Swiss adventurer and Mongolia expert Marc Progin, who read my first article, announcing the expedition.  Questioning Nichols’ motives, Progin urges him to respect the wishes of the Mongolians and call off the search.
“I’d say to those who don’t want him to be found, ‘He’s going to be found,’” says Nichols, when I mention the message.  “He’s the most famous warrior in the history of the world.  “We now have satellite imagery, drones, ground-penetrating radar.  We have all sorts of things, both from military and from mineral research.  They’re going to find it, and they’re going to find it soon.  And if it’s not found by someone who wants to take it to the next step – which is to find the right institutions and way to protect those remains – it’ll be another Disneyland.”
Is it the glory he’s after? After all, what explorer wouldn’t want to be remembered as the man who solved one of history’s greatest mysteries?
Nichols says it’s neither the glory nor the gold he’s seeking.
“Education in Europe and the US is appal­lingly poor as to Genghis Khan,” he says, citing freedom of religion and diplo­macy as just some of the ideas the famous conqueror intro­duced.  “I mean, we talk about Caesar, Alexander ...  they’re nothing compared with Chinggis Qa’an in what they accomplished.  So I think that the idea of pre­serving this memory and this knowledge is important.”

The entrance to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ordos, Inner Mongolia.
We spend the first few days driving along backroads, studying terrain, looking for places that would be impassable for a horse- or oxen-drawn cart carrying a corpse.  
Over the week, Nichols narrows down his hypothetical route by a process of elimination.  We follow a railway line that heads north to Zhongwei.
“Railways have to be basically flat,” says Nichols.  “Of course, there were no railroads in 1227, but that’s a huge hint.  This rail­road gives us the track from the Liupan Mountains: flat and straight through this valley to the Yellow River.”
On day four, we pull up in a jeep at the surreal Shapotou Tourist Zone, with its enormous castle entrance, coloured flags flapping in the wind, pop music blaring from loud­speakers and golf carts taking tourists out to embark on overpriced camel tours.  Nichols explains to the perplexed cameleers that we aren’t interested in taking the tourist route and want to ride their beasts north instead.  He wants to test how far a camel can travel across desert sands in a day.
The Shapotou Tourist Zone, where Nichols met his camels.
“I can’t talk about how long it takes a camel to go up this desert to Mongolia unless I’ve done it myself,” he says.  “I’ve always found that it’s vitally important to be hands-on.”
Says Lauterbach, “Alan does his exploring in a shoe-leather fashion, where you go out and really beat the pavement to find the information.  And he’s doing it in the classic old-fashioned way.  It’s fascinating to watch him work.”
We become hypnotised by the alien landscape of the Tengger Desert and the lurching movements of the camels.  Our ride resembles little what a Mongol army’s would have been like, but gives an idea of how time-consuming it is to cross such challenging terrain.  The dunes are steep and the sand gives way under the camels’ feet, causing them to slide and stumble; the fact that they’re tied together on a short rope doesn’t help.
“I can’t talk about how long it takes a camel to go up this desert to Mongolia unless I’ve done it myself.  I’ve always found that it’s vitally important to be hands-on.”
We set up camp just before nightfall and, watching him walk up the dunes, his feet sinking into the sand, for the first time I worry that Nichols looks tired.  It’s easy to forget his age because we spend most of the time struggling to keep up with him.
“He’s driven,” observes Griffith.  “And he pushes himself – physically, spiritually and intellectually.”
“Alan really is formidable,” says Hao, who is also a chef and hotelier.  “The way he climbs mountains and things – you wouldn’t see Chinese men of his age doing this.”

Nichols joins a tai chi session in Liupanshan town.
For his part, Nichols, whose motto is that anything can be done at any age (it just takes a little longer), says he feels exhilarated.
“I have given up my hypothesis of the cortege going north through here,” he says.  “You’d never take a cart, even if it was pulled by camels, through this.  This would be a really big job even for Chinggis Qa’an, with his unlimited camels, troops, resources.”
The procession would have travelled along the outskirts of the desert, he suggests.  Most experts believe the funeral cart was drawn by oxen, but “I asked the cameleers here, what about oxen?” says Nichols.  “The oxen are too low, they wouldn’t go through the sand.  A camel can go a week without water or food.
“Ours were very slow-paced camels.  But just camels like this – and he would have had warrior camels – can travel 60km to 80km a day.  Add to that the fact that Mongol warriors would be moving day and night.”
The expedition team test how far a camel can travel across dunes in a day, followed by filmmakers Caleb Seppala and Jackson McCoy; cameleers make a bonfire at the camp by night.
That night we eat by a fire, Nichols serenading us with 1930s campfire songs while the cameleers teach the film crew raucous drinking games.
In the morning, the sand is smooth except for snake trails and the footprints left by lizards and small mammals.  While we ride, a large grey fox sprints away from us across the dunes.
Leaving the desert the next day, we detour to the swampy banks of the Yellow River, in Yinchuan, before heading out on a long, dusty drive towards Ordos, in Inner Mongolia.
“We’re standing on a battlefield,” says Nichols, pacing the muddy ground.  “We’re at a place that was critical to Chinggis Qa’an’s attack on the Tanguts,” he says, referring to the 1226 Battle of the Yellow River, part of Genghis’ campaign to conquer the Western Xia empire.
“The best defence from Mongol cavalry? Water.  So the Tanguts built ditches, lakes ...  but Chinggis waited till wintertime, when it froze.”
Mongol horses could swim but a funeral procession would have had to transport heavy carts across the river, he says.  “And they did that, but they wouldn’t walk along the river like we are and get bogged down.”
As we drive out of Ningxia – home to Hui Muslims – to Ordos, the script on the road signs changes from the horizontal Arabic to the vertical Mongolian, even though Mongolians make up just 20 per cent of the population in Inner Mongolia.
We take six-lane highways past colossal skyscrapers, many of them ghostly empty shells, lit up at night only by the neon lights lining their exterior.
Rigorous research and a difficult drive through harsh terrain lead the explorer to a former battlefield by the banks of the Yellow River.  The area was critical to Genghis Khan's attack on the Tanguts in 1226, a year before he died.
Our route changes as Nichols updates his hypothesis according to his findings.  He scribbles in a small notebook he keeps in his pocket and quizzes locals – tour guides, drivers and professors – for information, all the time being careful not to reveal his mission.
Our final stop is the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, in Ordos, an area the warrior was believed to have admired in 1227.  It holds artefacts, including his saddle and bow, and inside there are statues of Genghis, incense, signs urging visitors to make donations and souvenir shops selling trinkets featuring his face.  Despite the name, few believe Genghis’ body is buried in this “mausoleum”, which was built in 1954 by a Chinese govern­ment keen to adopt the legendary warrior as a national hero.
The Mausoleum was built in 1954 by a Chinese government keen to adopt the legendary warrior as a national hero.
Later when I tell Weatherford I’m struggling to find a Mongolian expert willing to share their point of view for this story, he explains that, language barriers aside, such issues are politically sensitive.
“Scholars in many countries have claimed that the site is in their country – Mongolia, China, Russia and Kazakhstan, in particular,” says the anthropologist.  “The claim of finding a tomb in any one of these countries would be somewhat alarming to the others and might be interpreted as a claim that that country is heir to the world empire of Genghis Khan.”
Eventually, Naran Bilik, a distinguished Inner Mongolian professor specialising in anthropology and ethnicity at Fudan University, Shanghai, replies somewhat cryptically to my emails.  He says efforts to discover Genghis’ body have to take into account at least three factors.
“First, the subjectivity of the locals is vital since Genghis Khan means a lot to them,” he says.  “Second, even amongst the Mongols there are different sections and private indi­viduals – who can represent the Mongols? Are Inner Mongolians part of those who have a voice in such matters? Thirdly, it is a matter of negotiation and compromise, eventually.  All parties involved have a stake in it and they have to strike a balance between different claims.”
Nichols says he’s aware of the sensitivities.
“I have an obligation to protect the tomb.  And I’m not big enough to do it myself.  It’d have to be the United Nations; it has to be cooperative.”
“I feel that responsibility to do my best.  In fact, I even thought at one time that if I was unable to get the right people involved, I would not tell anybody.  Or, like Chinggis Qa’an would do: I would tell them the wrong place,” he says.  “I have an obligation to protect the tomb.  And I’m not big enough to do it myself.  It’d have to be the United Nations; it has to be cooperative.  And the world has to know about it, and expect that we’re going to preserve this memory.”
Nichols says he thinks the analysis of the data he and his team have collected will be complete by March.
“As a scholar I look forward to learning about what he finds,” says Weatherford.  “Yet, as a person who loves Mongolia deeply, I also love the mystery surrounding the end of Genghis Khan’s life.”
And if you’re thinking this is the explorer’s last big shot at glory before he retires, you’re mistaken.
“This is definitely not my last expedition,” says Nichols.
His next? All I can say is that it will take him into remotest Bhutan.
I could tell you more, but then I’d have to shoot you.